/ Food & Drink, Health

Have you checked the hygiene rating of your Christmas meal?

Christmas place setting

In this guest post from the Food Standards Agency, Catriona Stewart explores why it’s important to check a restaurant’s food hygiene ratings before booking your Christmas meal….

Most of us will have a least one festive meal out with colleagues, friends or family this Christmas. Our research tells us that food hygiene when we eat out is one of the main concerns we have about food safety, and yet very few people factor this into planning their get-togethers.

We tend to think that we can gauge the level of cleanliness and hygiene when we’re out just by looking. The truth is, you can’t tell a restaurant’s hygiene standards by how tidy the staff are or by how busy the place is. It’s the things you can’t see – like poor hygiene practice in the kitchen – that you need to consider.

The Food Hygiene Rating Scheme is a simple way of finding out. Food outlets in England, Wales and Northern Ireland are given a rating when they are inspected by local authority food safety officers – from 0 at the bottom to 5 at the top. Scotland has a similar scheme of its own.

Food hygiene ratings video

Knowing about the hygiene standards means you can be confident that you’ve covered all the bases when you’re the one in charge of making the choice. Around 93% of businesses have a rating of 3 or above so you won’t need to spend ages tracking somewhere down.

It’s really easy to check too. If you’re booking in advance, go online to www.food.gov.uk/ratings. If you’re out and about, look for the green and black sticker – if you can’t see one, just ask the staff.

We know lots of people make spontaneous decisions about where to eat so we want it to be compulsory for businesses to put their sticker up in their window. It’s already the law in Wales, and it’s moving that way in Northern Ireland. We will be pressing the case for this in England too.

Do you check the food hygiene rating when you eat out? Would you change your mind about a place if you knew it‘s hygiene standards weren’t up to scratch? It would be great to hear what you think?

Which? Conversation provides guest spots to external contributors. This is by Catriona Stewart, the head of compliance and enforcement at the FSA. All opinions expressed here are Catriona’s own, not necessarily those of Which?.


I will be having my Christmas meal with family and they are very responsible about food hygiene.

I invariably check Food Hygiene Ratings before eating out and encourage others to do the same. It is high time that it is mandatory to display ratings but most of the ones with a decent rating already do so. I hope Which? will continue to support the FSA until this has been achieved.

It would be useful to have a proper smartphone app for Food Hygiene Ratings. The present one simply opens the relevant page on the FSA website, which is not particularly easy to use on a mobile.

Thank you for reminding me to check the Food Hygiene Rating of the restaurant in Norwich where we have booked a pre-Christmas dinner. Norwich City Council puts a lot of information about eating places on its website and with just three clicks I was able access the full inspection report [11/06/2014] for our chosen venue. We ate there a few weeks ago after failing to get into another restaurant and we were so impressed by the quality of the meal and service, its value, and the amenity of the establishment, that we subsequently booked to go there again. Having just checked the FH Rating [only 1] and read the report I am seriously reconsidering going there unless I can be reassured that remedial action has been taken. So I shall be going there on Monday with the intention of speaking to a management representative; I hope I am allowed to put a number of questions and possibly allowed to look at things that received adverse comments in the official inspection report. If I am not satisfied I shall probably go across the road to the City Hall and try to talk to an officer in the Food Hygiene Team. Unfortunately we have very little chance of getting a table at any other restaurant in the city in the days leading up to Christmas.

I am very impressed by John’s plan to speak to a restaurant owner regarding their Food Hygiene Rating. I hope you are reassured and have an enjoyable meal. 🙂

I did contact the Food Standards Agency when I spotted that a restaurant was displaying a higher rating than they were entitled to, and was asked to contact the relevant council. I would have done so if it was my local council, but decided to ask FSA to take care of it. FSA arranged for a council representative to visit the premises and the window display was corrected promptly, but the website was not changed for several months due to some difficulty in getting this done. At one time I was keen on premises owners putting their Food Hygiene Ratings on their websites but now realise that it is better to check the FSA website.

I’m afraid the Food Hygiene rating is not a particularly reassuring system. To gain a 5 Star FHR (the top) involves ensuring – first and foremost – that the paperwork is in order. That’s about 95% of the issue. After that a cursory examination of the tiled surfaces, hand washing facilities, ‘use by’ and ‘date opened’ stickers on food canisters and finally the refrigeration system is all that’s required. The staff are not checked, the cleanliness of the dishes not checked, the preparation surfaces and chopping boards are not checked and the quality of the drinking water is not checked. The system can do nothing about the grumpy waiter, who decides to add ‘flavour’ to an awkward customer’s meal, or the chef who – upon having a dish returned – will ensure the substitute is full of ‘added value’.

Most worrying is that actual practice – as distinct from what the cafe’s paperwork says is practice – is not checked. There are some basic rules if you are that keen on remaining un-poisoned: never, ever send a dish back. If there’s something wrong, get a refund. Try – if you can – to get a cafe where the kitchen operates in full view of the diners. You can then see at a glance what’s good and what’s dodgy. Finally, be really nice to the waiter. You can be nasty afterward, but not before you’ve eaten.

We’ve been getting five stars on our FHR since it started, so we do know how this works.

I am very impressed by the thoroughness of the reports produced by Norwich City Council’s food hygiene inspectors. They seem to go into a lot more detail than Ian suggests and examine a lot of vital aspects of premises’ condition, food storage and preparation, staff apparel, and hygiene and cleanliness standards – including surfaces, chopping boards, cloths, even down to whether the ice is open to contamination due to exposure. They are particularly critical of the trend of serving steaks and burger dishes on slices of timber which are prone to deterioration and can then harbour bacteria Aspects of staff behaviour during service are outwith the remit of the food hygiene inspectors and the responsibility of the management. I would expect a management that can secure and retain five stars to be conscientious enough not to tolerate any misbehaviour of any kind so that anyone with any malicious inclinations at all towards the customers is dismissed at an early stage. I have considerable confidence in the FHR system if the public authority is diligent [as evidenced by its reports], and I think a five star rating is a good clue to the overall quality of the establishment.

I am impressed too, having had a good look at the detailed Norwich reports and I wish that my council and others would publish details of inspections. I am not convinced about the Norwich inspectors’ apparent obsession with antibacterial spray, since there is a temptation to use that as a substitute for proper cleaning. I don’t want my food contaminated with the stuff, thank-you.

I agree. Too many eating houses and hotels think a squirt from a bottle will make everything clean. The spray emerging from the atomiser goes all over the place and, unfortunately, it has become a substitute for proper cleansing. Changing the tablecloths after every customer is my preferred procedure but that is expensive and not in keeping with the fashion for bare tabletops [it goes with the primitive concept of eating off a piece of driftwood with chips in a little tin bucket].

“I am very impressed by the thoroughness of the reports produced by Norwich City Council’s food hygiene inspectors. They seem to go into a lot more detail than Ian suggests ”

Well, no they don’t. I’ve looked at several of them, and they do what I said: track statutory compliance through record keeping, and make observations. I notice that they don’t check the quality of drinking water, for instance. I’m not saying they’re a waste of time. They’re a huge improvement on what went before but they don’t tackle the basic issues of food hygiene. When you say

“I would expect a management that can secure and retain five stars to be conscientious enough not to tolerate any misbehaviour of any kind so that anyone with any malicious inclinations at all towards the customers is dismissed at an early stage. ”

I’m afraid your disconnect from reality is showing. Omniscient management simply doesn’t exist and bad behaviour thrives, even in five star establishments. Until they institute snap inspections at frequent intervals and employ ‘mystery visitors’ then the system will continue to be played by the unscrupulous. Good food hygiene is determined by your subsequent survival and well-being. The types of bugs that can cause serious illness are increasing, but these are usually destroyed by thorough cooking. It’s the chef’s hands that need swabbing, but there was no evidence of that being done, either.

So I really wouldn’t cancel your Xmas meal on the basis of the report. But do visit the kitchen – unannounced – and see what you make of the place.

Ian – I agree that most bugs are destroyed by thorough cooking. However, everyone should be aware that food that has been stored for too long or incorrectly can contain heat-stable toxins from bacteria such as staphylococci and Bacillus cereus, These survive temperatures above boiling.

That’s true. My main point, however, was that although you’re far less likely to get poisoned through toxicity if the procedures are followed (which is why I said things were better now) you’re just as likely to fall foul of something nasty presented without your knowing about it, which is why I favour Mystery dining and more frequent inspections. The FH scores do a little but they’re nowhere near enough and the structure is – I believe – flawed.

There is a restaurant I know which has consistently gained the highest ratings, yet which allows cats and dogs to roam the kitchens during service. I like animals, but not where my food is being prepared. I simply think we need a new approach.

Comments on previous Conversations on this topic have shown that many local authorities are not undertaking enough food safety inspections and do not have enough resources to do much more than a perfunctory minimum. People have said how reporting infractions to the public health department has not been worth while – it’s only when there is an outbreak of food poisoning that additional enforcement action is taken. Personally I would report something like cats and dogs in the kitchen; perhaps i have been lucky enough to live in places where the public health issues have been taken seriously and reports have led to timely follow-up action. Overall I think the expectations of the food hygien rating system greatly exceed the actuality but, as Ian has said, it is better than nothing and has led to an uplift in standards. Generally I feel that the regime is too focussed on giving a balanced report and will not hit hard enough where there is a serious safety or health risk. To issue a rating of 1 in June and not to have reinspected by December to see what remedial action has been taken, in my view, is not good enough. At what point with a score of 1 does enforcement action actually occur I wonder? It seems to me that an establsihment can stroll along on a score of 1 for as long as it likes, and if there is no requirement to put the scores on the doors than as like as not they will get away with it indefinitely.

It’s like any system, really; it’s as effective as the enforcing bodies make it, and with money systematically being withdrawn from local councils everywhere, with much worse to come, apparently, then we really return to my initial point.

I live in an area where the scores have to be displayed, but unless and until the nature of the system fundamentally alters then I don’t see its reliability increasing. Currently, there’s far too much reliance on the paperwork, which translates to the report in ways which give the impression that each aspect was examined which in reality it isn’t. But that’s an inherent problem with government: they seem to think only in terms of paperwork, as though the recording or planning of something was in itself sufficient. Wonder why they don’t learn the lessons of imposing it in teaching or the NHS?

In fact, Trip advisor offers an almost more reliable indicator. People soon post on there if they’re unhappy.

Thanks for all your comments Ian. As an insider your insights are much valued.

I have seen a TV programme on Health Inspectors and covering this aspect and I can easily see the tick-box format and mentality. I have absolutely no doubt that it does have a beneficial effect but also believe that it is not, and cannot be, a guaranteethat there will never be an incident.

Perhaps it would be fairer to the public to be upfront that the system is actually working to measure minimum acceptable standards. And that re-views of the lowest scoring is apparently not a matter of urgency.

What I also find interesting is that places that score 5 stars are not then revisited for 18 months. But to be effective, these inspections should be completely random.

I assume that Ian is referring to unannounced inspections, which I very much support. It’s fairly obvious that most catering establishments will make sure they are well prepared for planned inspections.

Ian has raised the interesting point that the ‘statutory’ food hygiene inspections have to follow, for the most part, a systematic process through a standardised script that demonstrates to a supervising officer that certain required observations have been conducted and evidence has been recorded with information or recommendations issued as appropriate. The inspectors will look for conformity or contravention in likely places and they might notice non-compliance in other places. What they will rarely see is the actual performance during service in the evenings or at weekends when a busy restaurant might be under a mild state of chaos, where casual [under-trained and under-experienced] staff are operating at full stretch, and where the maintenance of high standards is bound to suffer. It might be a good idea if the local authorities with food hygiene responsibilities engaged with the population at large and encouraged customers to send in reports on eat-in or take-away premises they have visited. I would prefer to submit a report to the council’s food safety team for them to take appropriate professional follow-up action than to put something on TripAdvisor. The biggest problem I can foresee with this idea is that neither I nor anyone I know would be seen dead at many of the places that require more active attention [largely for fear that we would be . . .]; the remaining customers are probably not in a fit state to put anything coherent on a piece of paper and present it to the authorities.

This afternoon I visited the restaurant in Norwich which I referred to in my post above [06/12/2014 @ 5.55pm]. I was able to speak to the ‘front of house’ manager but could not enter the kitchen since service was in progress but I was able to check some of the safety issues in the publicly accessible areas that had been referred to in the food hygiene inspector’s report. The manager I spoke to explained very thoroughly and convincingly all the action that had been taken including in the food storage & preparation areas and in the cellars. She said that all the recommendations had been complied with and that the entire kitchen staff had left [not necessarily of their own volition] and been replaced following the issue of the inspection report. She told me that a follow-up expectation was due imminently but did not know on which day it would take place. I felt reassured and have no intention of cancelling my pre-Christmas booking. I shall, of course, be a bit more eagle-eyed on that occasion to satisfy myself that the place has improved. I would hope to see a 4 rating or better following the re-inspection.